Designing a tiny house in SketchUp: tutorials & resources

Naj Haus

Naj Haus in SketchUp (since revised slightly, including adding a full-length covered porch on the front)

Now that I’ve survived the last few months of design crunch and the first building stint, I’m catching up on some technical posts. You may remember I was determined to design my house the old school way with graph paper, pencil and a triangular engineering ruler. Part of this was because I loved the tactile feeling of drawing and it seemed in keeping with the tiny house simplicity mindset, and part of it was that my earlier experience with SketchUp had been a little frustrating. I’m usually comfortable diving into a new software application and figuring it out as I go, but I quickly learned that SketchUp, while an amazing free 3D modeling tool, is not exactly intuitive. I was able to make some rudimentary conceptual designs but lines stuck together, moved in strange ways, and basically made me want to kick it.

Just as I was getting serious about my final designs, I stumbled across some online SketchUp tutorials and the lightbulb went on. Once you get a few key concepts, it starts to make a lot of sense. I invested a weekend learning it and then spent the next few weeks painstakingly building my virtual house stick by stick, pretty much like I would do during actual construction (it takes less time if you aren’t making a zillion design decisions and research tangents along the way).

So to share the SketchUp love, here are the tutorials and resources I found most helpful:

SketchUp.com

SketchUp (formerly Google SketchUp, now owned by Trimble) has been revamped since I first got it. Now the free basic version is called SketchUp Make (from what I saw in forums a few months ago, I gather that what you download is actually the free trial of SketchUp Pro but if you don’t buy the license when the trial expires, you can keep using the minimal features, i.e., Make. It’s possible this is handled differently now.) If you are going to be using SketchUp commercially, you should buy SketchUp Pro to be legit.

SketchUp also has a Knowledge Center with a user guide. The Learn dropdown menu has various video tutorials and other guidance that is moderately useful.


MasterSketchup.com

The tutorials I found most helpful were by Matt Donley at MasterSketchup.com. His website has lots of good information and his MasterSketchup.com YouTube Channel has really exceptional tutorial videos. In particular, check out the For Beginners Parts 1 & 2 and the five-part Model a Shed series. This is where I had my “aha!” moment – for the first time I got the concept of groups, components, and how to use a lot of the tools and the Outliner window to stay organized. His videos are perfectly paced and super clear.


The Digital Jobsite

Another useful site is Matt Jackson’s The Digital Jobsite YouTube Channel. His Carpenter’s Introduction to 3D Modelling Days 1-3 is a good intro tutorial series in which you learn basic SketchUp skills building a sawhorse. The All About Sheds page has numerous videos related to framing a tiny house.


Tiny House Design

And last but not least are Michael Janzen’s (TinyHouseDesign.com) video tutorials – be sure to check them out on his YouTube Channel. Michael’s also been building a series of SketchUp files for various components useful in designing a tiny house. So far he’s made available ones for windows, a gas fireplace, a woodstove, composting toilet and especially useful, three sizes of trailers (this came out just after I spent seven hours building my own trailer component!). He’s even made available a 20-foot tiny house shell to help you get started with conceptual planning.

(Side note: For those of you not yet ready to dive into SketchUp, Michael recently developed a great Tiny House Floor Plan Print and Cut Worksheet that he’s providing as a free download. If you need help with ideas, he also offers numerous plans that he has created.)


Key concepts to understand:

Since it can be a little overwhelming at first, here are some key concepts to focus on. If you get a handle on these, you should be able to create your tiny house model:

  • How to use the SketchUp tools – particularly Select, Orbit, Pan, Look Around, Move, Push/Pull, Rectangle, Rotate, Scale, Ruler, and Dimension.
  • If you’re using SketchUp to create your actual plans, be sure you are knowledgeable about framing principles. See the Resources page for some of the books I’ve used extensively. Taking tiny house workshops and seeking the advice of professionals is highly recommended if you haven’t framed before. Also, be familiar with standard lumber dimensions and use them to accurately create your studs and sheathing in the model.
  • Explore the component warehouse and how you can download components into your model, and rotate and scale them to fit. If you want, you can upload components you’ve built to share with others. It’s a cool crowd sourcing concept.
Naj Haus floor plan aerial 3D

Aerial view of Naj Haus floor plan. I downloaded the windows and door from the component warehouse and modified them to fit my needs. In earlier designs, I also downloaded furniture and appliance components, but for my purposes here I just used the Rectangle and Push/Pull tools to approximate the various built-ins.

You can take the modeling to extremes, adding textures (the free version has a basic set but is limited), landscaping, and photographic backgrounds to really picture what your house will look like. For me, it was enough to just use it for conceptual planning and to create my framing plans, and the free version works perfectly well for that. I love the Look Around tool – it’s like you are inside your house. This is great for figuring out window placement and size, how interior walls will affect the sense of space, and lots more.

Creating my SketchUp model was an awesome exercise to go through because it raised so many issues I would have had to work out on site, saving me lots of grief and wasted wood. By the time you’re done with the model, you pretty much know every inch of your house, how everything fits together, what’s connected to what, etc., which is very helpful in understanding the implications of changing something when you’re actually building.

Even if you have purchased ready-made plans, you still might want to build your own model. Some plans come with a SketchUp model, but there’s definitely value in building your own from scratch by following the plans. It’s like a construction dry run and will get you intimately familiar with the plans and how it will all go together.


Don’t get lost in fantasy land

SketchUp is great for quickly trying out lots of ideas and then refining your plans, but remember it’s all somewhat approximate – a guide, not a rigid rule book. Once you get your trailer and start laying out your framing, you’re going to need to make many adjustments based on the actual measurements you have to work with. Be aware of how the parts of your model fit together so that if you make changes, they won’t impact something else on down the line. For instance, know which of your studs need to be placed in specific positions so that the sheathing will line up properly, and which studs can be shifted as needed within the proper on-center spacing.

I made a lot of changes on the fly during the framing. After the walls were up, I made notes on my plans of the final as-built measurements. I need to put these changes in my model for future use but I find myself oddly reluctant to go back to the virtual world. Now it seems like such a pale imitation compared to the real thing!

the tiny cabin
listening to pine wind
its very own planks

~ Jane Reichhold

Categories: design | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Designing a tiny house in SketchUp: tutorials & resources

  1. Thanks for sharing my site! I’m so glad you found it helpful. For Tiny Houses, I’d have to agree with your recommendation to start with the 2 beginner videos, then jump into the shed series.

    • Thank YOU, Matt, for making such excellent tutorials! It’s a real gift to be able to translate complex, technical information into an easy-to-follow format. So glad to have discovered your site and I hope it will help others as much as it did me.

  2. These are great tutorials. Thank you.

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